TORONTO -- Ontario’s online portal where people from the general population can book their COVID-19 vaccine appointment will be launched on March 15, and will start by allowing people 80 and over to register first.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, the head of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, made the announcement on Wednesday, saying that the province is “furiously working” to launch the online and telephone booking system in order to start vaccinating people in the general population.

“Our plan is in place, we're rolling it out,” Hillier told reporters. “We are now furiously working to do the final stages of preparation to test [the booking system] thoroughly and then to go live with on the 15th of March.”

Once the platform is launched, people 80 and older in Ontario can begin booking their appointments starting on March 15. On April 15, people over the age of 75 will be able to book. On May 1, people over the age of 70 will get access, June 1, people aged 65 and over can book an appointment and on July 1, booking will be open for people 60 and over.

Hillier warned that people should not try to access the website outside of their given timeframe as they will not be able to use the system.

“Stay off the online reservation system, please, and stay off the customer service desk call center,” he stressed.

Essential workers will likely be able to book their appointments and receive their first doses during the first week of May if supply of the vaccine to the province runs smoothly, Hillier said, adding that the decision regarding who qualifies for the vaccine in that category will come from cabinet.

He said he could not provide a timeline on when people of other groups will be able to get their vaccine despite the federal government’s timeline of providing a shot to everyone who wants one by the end September. Hillier said its all dependent on the vaccine supply that Canada gets, and possible interruptions with that supply.

“We don't need to answer it right now. Early summer, I think, is when we'd be starting to discuss that issue and see if we were getting to a point where we could actually just go straight through the population,” Hillier said.

“Our challenge now is that we still have relatively small numbers [of vaccines], and we still have large numbers of those in most vulnerable circumstances.”

Critics say Ontario appears to be lagging behind other provinces, including Alberta and Quebec, which have already launched their online booking systems for the public.

In response, Hillier told reporters on Wednesday that the booking system is not needed earlier than March because priority groups, including health-care workers, long-term care residents and members of First Nations communities, do not need to book their appointments online right now.

“We don't need those people to book appointments, we have a different methodology,” Hillier said. “It is not needed till at least the third week of March that we're into a category where we actually need bookings at mass vaccination clinics or in pharmacies.”

“I would have liked to have added earlier, quite frankly … but we have it almost ready.”

He said that while some provinces have already started vaccinating people over the age of 80 in the general population, Ontario has not because of how it has decided to run its program.

“We will be ready the third week of March to start in those age brackets and to work at them as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

Premier Doug Ford told reporters at a news conference that officials in Ontario want to ensure that the website is fully functioning before moving forward.

While Alberta’s website has already booked 10,000 vaccination, Ford said he does not want Ontario’s website crashing as it did in Alberta minutes after launching.

“They put up their website [and] bang, it crashed. We want to make sure we nail this, we have it down pat,” Ford said. “We’re leading the whole country. We are doing more than Alberta."

He also took a stab at Quebec, saying the province hasn’t administered a single second dose of the vaccine, but Ontario has thousands of people fully vaccinated.

The Quebec government decided not to administer second doses as a part of its vaccination strategy, which early data suggests is effective. A Quebec study found the COVID-19 vaccine to be 80 per cent effective after a first dose in the elderly and health-care workers. 

“The bottom line is we need vaccines. If we had millions of vaccines this should be a lot easier,” Ford said. “But right now, we are making sure that we vaccinate the most vulnerable, making sure that we focus on the front-line caregivers.” 

The province has said it administered 602,848 doses of a vaccine to residents so far and that 251,590 of those people have received their second shot and are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

So far, all residents of long-term care and high-risk retirement homes, who wanted a vaccine, have been given their first shot. Hillier said for the remaining days in February and in early March, the province is focused on revisiting these settings and offering the second shot of the vaccine. He said officials are also continuing to focus on remote First Nations communities.

The province reported, earlier this week, that each of Ontario’s 34 public health units would be tasked with creating their own strategy for administering the COVID-19 vaccine to their residents. The agencies will help deliver the vaccine through mass vaccination clinics, pharmacies and mini clinics led by primary care professionals.

Once their age group is permitted to access the online portal, people can log on to find their closest clinic. Residents will be asked to input their postal code, which will then bring up the closest vaccination clinic to their home.

“We will have a flyer go out to households to say when it's your turn. Here's how you'll find out and here's what you should do and here's what you should be prepared for,” Hillier said.

“The provincial plan is inclusive of our public health units, it is inclusive of our hospitals, it is inclusive of the pharmacies, and it also includes the primary care professionals, it's all hands on deck.”